Chapter no 21 – PUSHING FORWARD‌


“Hey, what’s your name, buddy?” CJ asked.

Donnie still looked like his consciousness was in limbo.

“I don’t think he talks,” Sam yelled over the roar of the pitching machines.

“Do you know if he can understand us?” “I’m not sure. I—I think so.”

CJ faced Donnie with a deathly serious demeanor.

“When we go that way,” CJ motioned toward the baseball machines, “you’ve gotta stay down, okay?”

Donnie gave no indicator that he understood. “I’ll stay with him,” Isaac interjected.

He grunted, still trying to manage the pain.

“Besides,” Isaac continued, “I think he might be short enough that the balls would miss him even if he was standing up.”

Isaac grimaced holding tight onto the makeshift bandage that CJ had applied to him. He used his free hand to grab hold of Donnie.

CJ couldn’t help but notice the extreme discomfort that Isaac was enduring.

“Okay. Are you good, dude?” he asked.

“Yeah, I think I’m okay. Just hurts like heck.”

CJ glanced away from the collective toward the steady and swift hail of baseballs. The fear he’d seen in their eyes rattled him to the core, but he couldn’t show any cracks. If he broke, then they’d all fall apart.

“Alright, go slow and try to stay as low as you can,” CJ instructed. “But my—my fucking arms are all torn up,” Bobby cried.

CJ looked at the wounds. The bright red was flowing generously from the thick gashes. His younger brother Kip was crouched down beside him as white as a ghost. They both looked so lost. Their horrified behavior begged for CJ’s guidance.

“We’ve gotta get out of dodge first. Then we’ll get those cuts covered up, like we did for Isaac’s, okay?”

Bobby nodded, snot bubbling out from his nose. The fighting spirit had left him. Following orders seemed much easier than giving them.

“Let’s go!” CJ yelled.

The group of torn-up tweens and teens left a long and slick trail of hot crimson as the collective bloodstain migrated through the marbles.

As CJ dragged his leaky limbs over the hardwood flooring, the glass balls rolled forward. Midway through he looked back to check on the others.

Isaac kept young Donnie low and guided him along close to Sam and Sadie. Tanya and his brothers crawled along carefully behind them.

“We’re almost there!” CJ reassured them.

Upon inching closer to the final pillar, CJ could see the space that would allow them to get around the corner and clear of the endless assault of line drives.

As they approached the neon exit sign beside the ball pit, the long trail of blood that was their ghastly imprint of progress finally diverted around the last pillar.

“What’s that noise?” Isaac asked, still holding tight to Donnie’s hand.

The struggling gasps of what sounded like a man gagging and choking were more than noticeable. The audio wasn’t excessively loud, but it was enough for them to hear the consistent struggle over the ball machines.

The children all looked in the direction that the macabre wheezing was coming from—the ball pit.

Upon closer inspection, the depraved elements of the area were made evident. The pit wasn’t massive but maybe half the size of an average McDonald’s Play Place. The simple, square space was filled with a variety of balls inside. Much like the marbles, they accounted for every color their eyes could register.

A pedestal stood in the center of the pit with a set of narrow, circular platforms, barely offering enough room to hold two feet inside them. The

act of ascending these intentionally tricky steps would require a nimble poise.

In the center of the pedestal above, a ‘man’ hung from a fraying rope. The dummy looked to be comprised of a stuffed animal type of material, his limp feet dangling just above the center platform.

The orange sphere representing the figure’s head was made of soft rubber. The old dodgeball showed signs of deterioration in addition to a jigsaw line of stitching that ran down the side. An unsettling grimace was painted below two large X markings that represented the creepy figure’s dead eyes. Continuing the cartoonish depiction, a big floppy tongue leaked out of the mouth slit.

A pointy, birthday party hat sat affixed to the tilted head. The tip of the hat was angled up at a boxy speaker in the corner, revealing the source of the gruesomely realistic sounds of strangulation. In the figure’s stuffing-filled hand sat an eight-inch retractable hunting knife and twine that had been spun around the blade to hold it in place.

“What the heck is this?” CJ asked.

“It’s hangman,” Tanya replied, looking beyond the floppy figure that hung in the center.

“She’s right,” Isaac concurred.


Covering the entire back wall of the ball pit, behind the creepy hanging man, hung a giant schoolhouse chalkboard. The green material had the etchings of a game many of the children had played in the past: hangman.

The depiction of the hanging man on the chalkboard displayed a full-body outline, just like the real-life version in front of them. There were several words beside the man that only had certain letters revealed.

Since there was no curator to ask how to play, it could only be assumed that the game was already over. Whatever letters had been revealed would be all that they had to work with. The puzzle read:



“Use your ears…” CJ mumbled, turning toward his sister. “These choking noises, they must be what that riddle was talking about, right?”

“I—I don’t like him. He’s really scary,” Sam said.

The frightened girl’s eyes started to water again. The events had become too much. Sam felt stress that was foreign. She just wanted to get away from everything. Something about the creepy, hanging man was too much for her to handle. She couldn’t look at him, talk about him, or think about him.

“We should just get away from him,” she cried.

Sam shut her eyes as Sadie wrapped her arm around her.

“It’s gonna be okay, Sam. We’ll figure it out,” Isaac said, with a tremble in his tone.

“Just try to stay calm. We’re only gonna figure out what to do if we work together,” CJ replied.

“I don’t wanna help! I can’t!” Sam cried.

“But the puzzle might have something to do with—”

Before Isaac could finish his sentence, Sam broke free from her sister’s loving hug.

“Sam, wait!” Sadie yelled.

“Don’t go!” Isaac screamed.

Sam didn’t respond, her glossy eyes were already fixed on the exit sign above the wide corridor. She could see a door at the far end of it. The path seemed much more attractive than the one being debated amongst the children. Anything was better to Sam than facing the hanging man for another second.

“I wanna see Mom and Dad,” Sam wailed.

In her head, the entire playground was just a sick joke. Mom and Dad would both be standing behind the door at the end of the tunnel, waiting with open arms.

“You shouldn’t go alone!” Sadie yelled.

She wanted to follow her sister, but Sadie’s own fear of well-being paralyzed her.

“The door’s this way!” Sam said.

She trotted under the hot pink exit sign and entered the dark tunnel. Suddenly, a dimmer, traditional exit sign triggered at the far end of the passageway. The faint flicker of the red lettering illuminated, further pronouncing the metal door she had in her sights.

“There’s a way out down here,” Sam said.

Sam had never been afraid of the dark, on the contrary, she always found comfort during the evening. Within the shadowy space, her dread of the hangman powered her.

CJ looked to Isaac and Sadie for council.

Sadie wasn’t eager to retrieve her sister, but she knew she might be the only one capable of calming her down. Against her instincts, she decided to volunteer herself.

“I’ll get her,” she said.

Breaking through her initial reluctance, Sadie bravely tailed her sister down the dark corridor of uncertainty.

“Sam, slow down! I’m coming!” Sadie pleaded.

Sam looked back at her sister, who was quickly closing the gap between them. She ignored Sadie’s request and continued on.

Sadie was several yards away from her sister when the odd noise occurred. She watched Sam step into the dirt as the sharp clicking sound

echoed. The fiery explosion that ensued rattled the entire tunnel.

The blast was powerful enough to send Sadie tumbling to the floor. The shock of the detonation left her wrapped in a cloud of disorientation. She did her best to shake off the cobwebs and squinted through the thick smoke in the direction she’d last seen Sam.

Panic suffocated Sam. The drippy crimson residue caked on her blood-splattered cheeks crudely complimented the horror of the situation.

Nasty burns dotted her once smooth flesh, scorching through various layers of her skin. One of her legs had been blown off just below the knee. The detached limb was morbidly garnished with a pointy bone that splintered out of the slick nub. The muddle of shredded meat still clinging to the mangled calf lay forlorn on the ground.

Cries ripped out of Sadie’s throat, and the echoes of agony reverberated. She stared into her sister’s stunned pupils then at her own hands and legs, trying to ensure that she remained with her factory settings intact.

“Sam!” she yelled.

“What happened?” Isaac bellowed.

Sam remained silent, stupefied by the horror.

Despite her screams, Sadie picked up on another clicking noise, growing louder by the second. It sounded different from the one that led to the explosion. With the smoke still fuming in her face, she couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

All the children outside of the corridor gathered at the far end of it. To their dismay, the outside perspective gave them the information that Sadie currently lacked.

Isaac yelled. “You guys have to get out of there—now! The ceiling’s coming down! Ruuuuuuuun!”

The dread soaked into his skull as he watched the structure slowly descend on his sisters.

Wails echoed, steadily bouncing off the walls within the smoke and darkness.

Isaac turned to CJ. “I’ve gotta get them!”

CJ shook his head, but as Isaac’s feet pedaled forward, he realized he was more compelled to listen to his heart than his head.

“Oh, God!” Isaac screamed.

As he penetrated the smoke, Isaac couldn’t help but feel like he’d made a mistake.

Tears bled over Sadie’s eyelids as she tugged Sam’s mangled body along. She was grateful to see Isaac arrive since each attempt only accounted for inches.

Upon seeing his sister’s mutilated leg leaking copious amounts of blood, Isaac froze.

“Hey! Snap out of it! We gotta go!” cried a voice beyond the smoke. CJ cut through the fog with urgency.

He still felt dizzy and nauseous from the gruesome sight, but as Isaac felt the vomit crawling up the back of his throat, he battled it.

CJ took the lead and approached Sadie.

“We’ll get her outta here, you’ve gotta get moving!” Taking control of Sam’s limp wrist, CJ pulled.

“Isaac, grab her other arm!”

Isaac’s cheeks puffed out like he was about to lose his lunch. Struggling with the partially processed food, he swallowed hard. He knew there wasn’t enough time to be sick and survive; it was one or the other.

The two boys tugged Isaac’s dazed sister down the increasingly claustrophobic path. But just as they hit their stride, the pace of the plunging ceiling quickened. As they closed in on the clearing, the boys hunched down. While neither Isaac nor CJ would’ve openly admitted it, the selfish thought of dropping Sam and running crossed their minds.

“I don’t know if we’re gonna make it!” CJ said.

Isaac tried to focus despite each step becoming more difficult than the last. Every second was of paramount importance and held a grave responsibility.

But as they came to the last few paces, Isaac’s worst fears came to fruition. He’d taken the awkward step he’d been trying to avoid.

His foot rolled sideways and sent him tumbling to the ground. His scrambling body landed in the dirt just a few yards from safety.

“Isaac!” Sadie screamed.

She wondered if it might be the last time she saw her big brother. The countless instances of her picking on him and calling him mean names all slapped her in the face at once. Sadie was too young to realize that life was so short, but the hard lesson arrived early.

CJ’s eyes shifted to Isaac mid-stumble.

He was in the midst of a spontaneous decision. It was a choice he didn’t want to make, but under pressure, was forced into. He dropped Sam’s hand

just over the end of the dark corridor and pivoted to Isaac. Grabbing ahold of his shirt, he yanked.

“Get her! Quick!” CJ yelled.

The direction was intended for the rest of the children, but as CJ dragged Isaac out of the path of the descending ceiling, he realized it might be too late.

Sadie and Kip rushed to pull Sam through the opening while the ceiling closed in. As they got hold of her arms, the heavy stone pinned Sam to the ground. They tried to jerk her forward, but she was stuck.

The sound of her bones shattering paired horrifically with Sam’s screams—wails that no longer sounded human. The shrill pitch of Sam’s voice and the bodily destruction bequeathed legendary trauma.

“Help me! Help me!” she frantically begged.

A massive expulsion of blood flooded from her cracking jaw. As Sam’s chin buckled into her face, it became clear those pleas would be her last.

Sadie clenched Sam’s hand tight and jerked back in desperation. The upsetting popping noise coming from her sister’s collapsing framework gave way to an even more disturbing soundtrack. Sam’s tissues continued to condense until the burden of the ceiling moved onto her squishy organs. The sequence of internal explosions sounded like a string of cheap fireworks. As Sam’s bodily cogs compressed into mush, an even grosser racket commenced. It resembled a wet boot struggling to un-stick from a pile of muck.

Kip stepped away from the unforgiving roof and froze. It was obvious there was no saving Sam, and the carnage had become too much for him to swallow.

The children watched on in revulsion as the ceiling cut into the back half of Sam’s head. Her cranium opened wide, releasing an inner violence the likes of which their juvenile minds would never forget. Each child watched on, bound by the identical tear streaks of terror.

Except for Donnie.

He stood within the chorus of disturbed moans, dry-eyed. Donnie’s outlet for emotional expression had been clogged long ago.

As the ghastly outbursts vomited out of the small spaces between the ruby floor and ceiling, the tension Sadie applied to her sister’s arm finally snapped. Sadie tipped backward and landed on her rump, yet somehow her little fingers remained interlocked with Sam’s.

The long strip of razor-metal lining the edge of the ceiling could’ve been easily overlooked, but as it dropped to the floor, and the fractured bone dislodged from the standard anatomical positioning, the glimmering horror became painfully obvious.

Sadie wailed uncontrollably, still holding onto the arm resting on her lap. While the mangled body part gushed all over her shorts, she couldn’t allow herself to relinquish it.

The metaphor wasn’t even intentional. She wasn’t ready to let go. “Noooooo!” Isaac screamed.

The section of Sam’s sloppy head that hadn’t been squashed was now the lone identifier of Isaac’s sister. The mash of pulp, teeth, skeletal fragments, and morbid juices that comprised the pile was a version of Sam her brother wished he’d never seen.

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